A Retort to the New York Times Article: The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

When I read the September 29 New York Times article ‘The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection” by Vanessa Friedman, I felt I had to correct some of her misconceptions and generalizations about why it may seem black designers are not included in museum collections/exhibitions. Firstly, Friedman doesn’t seem to understand that, regardless of colour, fashion has always been primarily about wealth and privilege. Even when stained and frayed jeans are chic, the wealthiest among us buy designer versions for stupid amounts of money.

There are different types of museums with fashion collections, and different mandates amongst those institutions. Some collect couture and designer fashions that legitimize fashion as an art form; some have a broader spectrum and also collect everyday manufactured and brand-name clothes; some fashion collections are focussed on a specific regional history, culture, or one type of fashion or textile (shoes, hats, lace…) 

True fact – Western fashion was invented by white people. It was born from the Italian Renaissance, developed significantly under Louis XIV’s reign, and was democratized by the French and Industrial revolutions. Since 1870, fashion has come from Parisian haute couture, mass-manufactured brands, 7thavenue and other designer ready-to-wear, and independent tailors and dressmakers. There are no museums, not even those that count scores of thousands of artifacts, that have a complete representative collection of any one of these categories.

Ethnographic fashions are usually housed in different departments of museums. This is because of the curatorial expertise required to research, identify, and care for the vast amount of information needed to understand the history of dress from hundreds of global cultures. Most curators working with Western fashion probably don’t know all the meanings of the motifs that appear in Chinese embroidery, or the various dyeing techniques used by Japanese weavers, or what garments are worn by Zuni girls in the Squash blossom ceremony, or by married Dutch women in Markermeer… nor should they. Fashion is a massively huge topic and every culture has a different story.

With the exception of clothes labelled by the maker and those that came with provenances from donors, museums don’t know who made or designed most of the garments and accessories in their collection. For example, Elizabeth Keckley, who made Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothes are not labelled – it is only because of her association with the president’s wife that her story is known. Even Anne Lowe is known largely because she made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. These two black women worked as dressmakers and had it not been for their famous clients their identities would likely be forgotten to history, along with the millions of other independent dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, milliners etc.

The American fashion industry didn’t even promote American designers, black or white, until World War II. It was only when American fashion was cut off from Paris that fashion journalists, in search of something to write about, began reporting on domestic fashion. Most designers until then, (and many still today) worked anonymously or behind a brand name. More information is being unearthed about these previously-unknown designers and makers, but this requires a massive undertaking of research that the internet has only made possible in the last twenty years and omissions aren’t going to be corrected overnight.

Although a few black designers are well known, like the usual triad referred to by Friedman in her article (Lowe, Burrows and Kelly) there are clothes in collections likely not identified as being by black designers because the designer’s name doesn’t appear on the label, such as Anthony Mark Hankins who was J.C. Penney’s in-store brand fashion designer for years. As well, unlike an Asian name, black names don’t always trigger racial identity. Let’s face it, unless you knew otherwise, Patrick Kelly sounds like a red-haired Irishman. There are also black designers whose work is exceedingly rare to find extant examples, such as Khadejha, whose Kanga cloth minis and maxis were displayed in the windows of Gimbels department store in 1967, and Jules Parker whose feathered swimwear and metal breastplates were featured in a Jet magazine article in 1974.

Since Stephen Burrows wowed Paris alongside four other American designers at the ‘Battle of Versailles’ fashion show in 1973, black fashion designers have become more visible and numerous in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of black designers working today and their clothes will filter into museum collections in the coming years as they are offered up for donation by their current owners. Very few museums buy contemporary clothes, as limited budgets for collection purchases are saved for the rarest pieces that scarcely include anything made within the last fifty years. 

Finally, museums that have representative collections of black designers may not have those pieces on display all the time. Aside from an exhibition about black designers, is it even relevant or appropriate to tell the audience the racial background of every designer? What about their gender identity, sexual orientation, political activity or religious affiliation? Sometimes a fashion exhibition is just about clothing – its construction, ornamentation, inspiration, and beauty, not who made it. As well, Most museum exhibitions are developed with the idea that they will attract a large audience. This is why Dior has been the topic of so many exhibitions in museums around the world over the past few years. A museum about ships may have many stories, but the Titanic will always bring in the biggest crowd.

In short, museums collect primarily what they are offered and most collections simply don’t have a lot to pull from when it comes to fashions by black designers for a variety of reasons – even the Met’s Andrew Bolton combed eBay and Etsy for a particular Stephen Burrows dress for his upcoming exhibition. Friedman probably doesn’t go out of her way to buy fashions by black designers and offer them to museums for posterity but does that make her a racist?

4 thoughts on “A Retort to the New York Times Article: The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

  1. One of the most internationally known instances of designer fashion, the Calvin Klein logo, owes its ubiquity and success to a Black designer.

    Jeffrey Banks (not to be confused with the Welsh designer Jeff Banks), while at Calvin Klein between 1973-76, had the idea to put the designer name on the sleeve of a T-shirt as a gift for Klein. Although it was intended to be a one-off gift, the idea was copied for the front-of-house team to wear during one of Klein’s catwalk presentations – and the reporters thought they were part of the collection, and asked whether they could buy them to wear too.

    So – every time you see a pair of Calvin Klein underpants, a shirt, a pair of logo jeans, basically every time Calvin Klein’s logo is visible on a garment – that only exists because a Black designer thought to do it first in the 1970s. But I don’t suppose a lot of people actually know that.

    I know that logo visibility was done well before then on really luxury garments and accessories (Chanel, Schiap, LV, etc) so it’s not necessarily a Black invention, but basically, Jeffrey Banks was responsible for one of the earliest instances of a truly mainstream, accessible and widely worn visible designer logo/name.

  2. Thanks so much for spelling out some things that might be obvious to collectors of clothing, but would not be to the average NYT reader. I have over 1000 objects in my collection, but as far as I know, only one of them was designed by a Black designer. That’s not by choice; it’s because in my pre-1980 era of collecting, there were so few acknowledged Black designers. I have a wonderful Stephen Burrows pants suit, and I’m always looking for a good early Willi Smith piece, but the search is made impossible with the modern licensing of his name.

    As for Ann Lowe, I think you are correct in the Jackie association. Every large city had custom dressmakers throughout the 20th c, and here in the South especially, many of them were Black women. The society dressmakers in Raleigh were sisters Mildred Otey Taylor and Willie Otey Kay, but I suspect they are unknown outside of North Carolina. They are well-represented in the NC Museum of History.

    The way forward is for museums to collect more modern pieces by BIPOC designers. You can’t collect what isn’t there.

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